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January 2009 Archives

January 30, 2009

No Magic Required

This article also appears in Haaretz

President Barack Obama has been thrust into center stage in Israel's general election. Not by choice, of course. Democratic hopeful Obama met with the leading candidates during his own campaign swing through the Middle East last July, and his newly appointed special Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, met with them all this week. If it were up to the U.S. president, one assumes that would be it.

But Kadima's spin doctors have other ideas, and have concocted a campaign message suggesting that a victory by Benjamin Netanyahu would lead to a rupture between Israel and the White House. Likud retorts that Netanyahu enjoyed excellent meetings with Obama when the latter was a senator, and that their views on an "economic peace" are closely aligned.

If this all sounds a little childish, that's because it is: Neither Barack Obama nor his brand of inspirational hope, combined with an agenda for progressive policy change, are on the Israeli ballot on February 10.

Despite the attempts to demonstrate difference, all of Israel's major parties are offering a staple diet of more of the same. Whether the label says "continuing the Annapolis process" or "economic peace," we already know what the unappetizing results will be: more improvisation and absence of strategy, and more tactics and permanent avoidance of the difficult decisions that need to be made.

On paper, government guidelines always talk about peace. On the ground, though, governmental actions just further entrench the infrastructure of occupation and expand settlements. When it comes to land and peace issues, Israel's leaders have become experts in one thing - postponing decisions. (The Palestinians don't exactly have a strategic plan, either.)

In fact, the argument over who will do best with President Obama comes down to this: Who can best assure that Israel will be left to its own devices to pursue...well, what exactly? There's the rub. We have become tactical masters, improvisational impresarios. But what strategic vision are we seeking to implement? Greater Israel? Then annex the territories and expel the Palestinians. Recognition, peace and a two-state solution? Then dismantle the settlements and end the occupation.

So on February 10, most Jewish Israelis will again be choosing not to choose - even if the consequences will be an ever-deteriorating national security environment in Israel, and even if the option of a democratic Israel with a Jewish character is receding with such speed that it is unlikely to outlast the Obama administration. (To be fair, voters for the far-right parties and those supporting Meretz will be expressing a choice.)

America and its new president do, of course, matter. The U.S. plays a key role in setting the stage for this exercise in improvisation. Without American facilitation, the make-believe, fairy-tale world of the never-ending, oh-we-are-so-close "peace process" cannot be sustained. And in this fairy tale, Tzipi Livni is not the Good Witch of the South, nor is Benjamin Netanyahu the Wicked Witch of the East. Rather, they are both competing to lead a body politic that more closely resembles a hybrid of the Cowardly Lion, the Brainless Scarecrow and the Heartless Tin Man.

The question for President Obama and his new envoy, former senator Mitchell, will be whether to maintain the fiction, or to chart a bold, game-changing course to resolve this conflict.

The former would entail continued American support for a West Bank strategy taken from classic counterinsurgency doctrine: supporting moderates through economic assistance, security training and a political embrace. However, the defining characteristic of the Palestinian situation is not the Fatah-Hamas rift, but a very different variable: namely, a continued hostile occupation that includes a dispersed civilian settler population. By not addressing this and by excluding Hamas based on political preconditions, and not just behavioral ones (cease-fire, end to violence), the prospects of any sustainable success for this strategy are totally negated.

The existing approach also invites occasional American spats with Israel over such policies as settlement expansion and checkpoints. But these distractions deal only with the problem's symptoms, not its cause. Settlement and closure policies are a derivative of the lack of a recognized border for Israel, of no Palestinian state and of no end to occupation. Settlements need to be removed, not just frozen in place.

A game-changing approach would address these issues or, in other words, the causes. Such an approach would probably require a U.S-led plan to resolve the conflict, together with regional and international partners. This plan would also have to address Israel's core and legitimate concerns: avoidance of a security and governance vacuum and threats from the areas Israel evacuates (probably necessitating deployment of NATO or other forces), international recognition of the new border and a finality of claims, Israeli sovereign discretion over its own immigration policy, and a regional framework based on the Arab Peace Initiative, whereby Arab states establish relations with Israel.

Israel's challenge would be to strategically and positively respond to such a plan and the opportunity it offers - or, even better, to initiate just such a game-changing move itself.

To stretch that "Wizard of Oz" metaphor a little further: No magical wizard is really needed. Rather, a determined American president who can speak in a language of common sense and shared interests to Israel's leaders, and in so doing help Israel to locate its collective and long underutilized brain, heart and courage.

January 23, 2009

Can George Mitchell Astound the Skeptics, Again?

This article also appears in The Huffington Post.

In the hectic days of Presidential campaigning of July 2008, then candidate Obama took time to visit the Middle East and Europe. That trip will be most remembered for the huge crowds in Berlin and basketball shots at Camp Arifjan U.S. Army base in Kuwait, but the words Barack Obama spoke in one of the ostensibly less memorable stops on that trip, in Amman, gained great resonance this week. In the Jordanian capital on July 22nd, Senator Obama made this commitment to advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace: "...my goal is to make sure that we work, starting from the minute I'm sworn into office, to try to find some breakthroughs."

Yesterday, he began to make good on that pledge with the appointment of former Senator George Mitchell to the position of special envoy for Middle East peace. Mitchell's new appointment closes a circle of sorts -- he was the last Middle East peace appointee of President Bill Clinton (October 2000), and will be the first of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The Mitchell announcement came after eight years during which there has been no American peace envoy, and the substance of the Mitchell's previous work on Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine is both attracting attention and igniting a precious, if cautious, spark of hope that progress toward peace might just be possible.

In April 2001, George Mitchell delivered the report of a fact-finding commission that he headed, assessing the previous year's outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence and how it might be brought to an end (see here). That report set the gold standard for understanding the conflict and the motivations of the different actors. Had Mitchell's recommendations been implemented by the Bush administration, the region might now look very different. The report eschewed apportioning of blame, calling instead for a ceasefire, a cooling-off period, mutual confidence-building measures and a return to credible political negotiations, without which violence could be expected to resume.

Mitchell was uncompromising on the need for Israel's legitimate security concerns to be addressed. He was also unequivocal in drawing the connection between the political environment and the security climate. For instance, on the impact of settlements, the Mitchell Report had the following to say: "A cessation of Palestinian-Israeli violence will be particularly hard to sustain unless the Government of Israel freezes all settlement construction activity." The report's recommendations did not though receive the active political backing of President Bush.

Despite the appearance of similarity to 2001 in today's Israeli-Palestinian strife, especially following the latest Gaza crisis, were Mitchell to produce a new report, its findings would likely highlight a rather changed landscape. The six percent of the Palestinian territories constituted by Gaza is settlement free, but is now separated from the West Bank not just geographically, but also politically. Fatah has lost its monopoly on political power and Hamas has entered the political arena, won parliamentary elections, and probably been strengthened by the latest conflagration. Israel, too, will likely experience political change in next month's elections with Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party poised to return to the premiership.

Current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have an unreal quality to them, seeming distanced from, and almost irrelevant to, the respective societies. The negotiators might consider each other to be partners but their peoples' are still locked into an adversarial and violent relationship.

This is where special envoy Mitchell's Northern Ireland experience might be most relevant, even if no two situations are fully analogous. George Mitchell served as U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland from 1995 to 1998. His Ireland strategy was to be inclusive, to bring the hardliners inside the political process, be patient, get parties into a room who had never met before but who held the key to the legitimacy of a process and for the only conditions for entry to be behavior related (a commitment to pursuing exclusively peaceful means), not ideological or political (recognizing a united Ireland or the permanence of Union with the British mainland, for instance).

Writing about the 'Irish Lessons For Peace' in the International Herald Tribune in May 2007 (together with Richard Haass), Mitchell suggested that "those previously associated with violent groups" should be brought in, preconditions be kept to an "absolute minimum", parties be allowed to "hold on to their dreams", and that sanctions be imposed for backsliding on commitments. All sound advice for anyone seeking to overcome the flaws in the current Middle East peace process.

Could a distinction for instance be drawn between the political wing of Hamas - the Change and Reform Party that won elections, and its military wing - the Izz-Al-Din al-Qassam brigades? Drawing a similar distinction between the political wing of the Republican nationalist movement - Sinn Fein - and the military IRA played a significant role in facilitating progress during key moments of the Irish process (and at times the same line has been pursued with the Basque separatist movement Herri Batasuna which competed in elections, and the ETA militant group).

While early U.S. engagement with Hamas is unlikely (and perhaps premature), other third parties might prod Hamas in this direction and away from violence, with a credible claim that a seat at the table of a meaningful political process awaits them. A division of labor might, for instance, make sense here, with Europeans or other regional actors (Turkey or Qatar, perhaps) conducting exploratory talks with the political Change and Reform wing of Hamas, while the U.S. adheres to a more rigid position. Mitchell's painstaking work in moving both Republican and Unionist militias away from violence and in gradually addressing the issue of de-commissioning of arms is also worth remembering.

In accepting his new envoy appointment, Senator Mitchell was not shy in setting an ambitious target: "There is no such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. Conflicts are created, conducted and sustained by human beings; they can be ended by human beings (Mitchell at the State Department, 1/22/09)."

Ironically, his first challenges may comes less from the Israelis and Palestinians that he will meet on his travels and more from the skeptics and naysayers in the Middle East peace industry back home in Washington D.C. He should expect to hear lots of "it can't be done" refrains, but as Mitchell himself noted speaking in Israel just last month: "In negotiations which led up to that agreement [Good Friday agreement] we had seven hundred days of failure and one day of success." New thinking is needed and a determination to create that one day of success for Israel/Palestine.

Some of Senator Mitchell's other observations from these previous postings are just as worth re-calling and applying in his new role. From Ireland we see that economic improvements were only sustainable alongside political progress, that political empowerment from back home in Washington is crucial to success and that an externally driven peace plan and diplomatic leadership can break a local political impasse.

It is clear too from George Mitchell's own book recounting his Ireland experience, "Making Peace: The Inside Story of the Making of the Good Friday Agreement", that skills finely tuned in the U.S. Senate can be put to effective use - hard-nose brokering of deals, stoical patience, and the imposition of deadlines when needed.

In one of the most dramatic scenes of all in Northern Ireland's history, in May of 2007 at Stormont, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness stood alongside the DUP's Ian Paisley, as Deputy and First Ministers respectively (and erstwhile, sworn enemies), and declared that the peace work in Ireland had "confounded the critics and astounded the skeptics." Mitchell's task in the Middle East will be to again confound and astound and to realize an equally historic moment.

January 21, 2009

Picking up the Peace

This piece appears in the new issue of The American Conservative

At this writing, the Gaza crisis continues, exacting a painful toll on the civilian population, hammering Israel’s image in ways unseen since Lebanon in the early 1980s, and relegating talk of peace to the funny pages. The working assumption is that there will be a ceasefire in which Hamas continues to be the governing address for Gaza—a political victory for the Islamic Resistance Movement (the literal translation of the acronym for Hamas). But for a ceasefire to hold, there will need to be an opening of the border crossings in an ongoing and predictable way, as well as a mechanism for preventing weapons smuggling into Gaza

The desire to avoid any semblance of Hamas achievement is one factor that has prolonged the fighting and encouraged alternative endgame scenarios. But the other options are even less attractive or realistic: an indefinite Israeli re-occupation of Gaza (publicly unpopular and militarily draining given anticipated resistance), handing Gaza over to Palestinian Authority/Fatah control (a killer blow for Fatah credibility when conducted on the back of an Israeli tank and likely to lead to an anti-PA insurgency in Gaza and possibly the West Bank), or stationing international forces in Gaza (just try recruiting nations willing to deploy for that mission). There is an in-between option: IDF troops remain on the Gazan side of the border with Egypt or conduct ongoing incursions, as they do in West Bank cities, creating conditions hardly conducive to a ceasefire.

Whatever the details of the de-escalation, when the smoke clears there will still be Hamas, there will be more angry Palestinians and Israelis, and the 94 percent of the Occupied Palestinian Territories that is not Gaza will still be dotted with settlements and Israeli forces. The larger conflict will remain very much unresolved.

Some might be tempted to push on with the Annapolis process launched by President Bush in November 2007. The new Obama administration will almost certainly flirt with the idea. But doing so would mean ignoring the flaws in the existing approach that the Gaza crisis has cruelly exposed. A hesitant Israeli leadership, enfeebled Palestinian Authority, and popularly challenged Arab regimes have all found a shared comfort zone in a process that has no end and almost never requires hard choices. Except that Operation Cast Lead has shown this zone to be not so comforting after all.

The edifice upon which Annapolis and U.S. policy toward the conflict have been constructed cannot hold. Israel, Fatah, and America’s Arab allies are unwilling or unable (sometimes both) to take the kind of action that might constitute a robust alliance against the regional forces that challenge them—forces of change and resistance, sometimes violent, often religiously inspired. Israel is not ending the settlements and occupation. The moderate Arab states cannot openly embrace Israel absent this step. And Fatah has neither the legitimacy nor the capacity to sign or implement a reasonable deal were such an offer available. The state of contemporary Israeli-Palestinian relations is one of conflict, not partnership. Israel and Fatah cannot defy this reality without a radical reconfiguration of the landscape.

The Gaza crisis has brought all of this to the fore. The handicap that plagues the so-called “alliance of the moderates” is visible in all its debilitating deformity. Israel brings destruction on Gaza and claims it is serving the cause of moderation and peace. Enraged Palestinians disown Fatah and the PA, accusing them of complicity, and are in turn intimidated by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank. Fatah leaders fight among themselves. Certain Arab allies are quietly supportive of Israel’s move, or unwilling to counter it, and are thereby further alienated from their own publics. Egypt bears the brunt of popular regional displeasure. The regime in Cairo looks more fragile than at any time during the 17 years of Mubarak’s rule, and such frailty is no basis for regional leadership. The idea that this collection of actors holds the key to negotiating and implementing an historic peace simply does not pass muster.

The policy question for the new U.S. government is whether there will be an acknowledgement of the collateral damage inflicted upon the Annapolis process during this Gaza crisis. It is now a victim of friendly fire and will need to find its resting place alongside many far more innocent victims.

There is no decisive victory to be had in the Middle East against an axis that is sometimes called “Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hezbollah,” but which is far more and far less than that. Less in that the so-called extremists do not walk in lockstep. There are distinct national, movement, and religious tensions within this camp. We are often the glue that holds them together. They also represent far more, offering an alternative narrative, many elements of which have popular appeal, and a broad following in the region—not just with Islamists but with democrats, reformers, and nationalist-based oppositions. Paradoxically, these may well be the people who can most effectively counter the brand of Islamism that actually does represent an implacable and dangerous foe: al-Qaeda-style Salafi extremism.

The Bush administration’s attempt to score a decisive victory for the so-called forces of moderation has more often than not been rejected in the region as an antidemocratic, humiliating neo-imperialist project. It has of course also been used as a recruiting tool by al-Qaeda and Co.

After Gaza, all sides must take a step back from exacerbating tensions, deepening divisions, and dreaming of unequivocal victories in this destabilized Middle East. The language of moderates versus extremists must be abandoned or at least much more sparingly applied. It is relevant for the Salafi jihadists, but that is it.

A new starting place would be to differentiate and disaggregate the various actors lined up against the U.S., Israel, and the ancien regimes. A region bubbling over with conflicts that are part regional proxy, part local circumstance is not a desirable situation. Gaza is the latest example—and a particularly bloody one.

The best way forward is simultaneously to de-escalate tensions at the regional level and resolve or at least defuse specific local conflicts. For instance, at the regional level, a Syrian-Saudi reconciliation might be encouraged and a similar approach adopted for overcoming internal Palestinian divisions. More broadly, and over time, a modus vivendi will need to be found with the non-al-Qaeda reformist Islamist groups, often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. None of this means that the excesses of the hardline narrative or the recourse to unprovoked violence should be accepted. The de-escalation formula will probably face its keenest challenge in attempts to test flexibility in Iran’s behavior. The current approach has mostly served to extend Iran’s reach well beyond its natural echo chamber.

Gaza again is an example. The Hamas-Israel conflict is primarily a local one, but if the local circumstances are not addressed, it can take on regional dimensions, as is currently the case. The local conflict and the regional equation—Syria, Iran, and the Muslim Brothers back Hamas; America and its allies are ranged against Hamas—feed off one another. De-escalation should happen in both directions, regional and local.

Recent developments in Lebanon may be instructive. Hezbollah has not joined the Gaza confrontation, avoiding a second front with Israel (at least as of day 18 of the conflict). According to the regional dynamic, Hezbollah should be getting involved. But in this case, the local dynamic is pushing in a different direction. The power-sharing arrangement in Lebanon brokered by Qatar sees Hezbollah back in government and looking ahead to new elections in June. A local incentive has been created which causes Hezbollah, a constituency-based organization, to weigh local considerations against regional alliance ones. So far local concerns are proving more resilient.

Now apply that to Hamas, Gaza, and the Israel-Palestine situation. Insufficient local incentive has been created to affect Hamas’s calculation. Hamas is also a constituency-based organization, attentive to the needs of the Palestinian population. By maintaining the closure on Gaza, Israel and the international community gave up a potential lever for modifying Hamas’s behavior—public Gazan pressure for extending the ceasefire. Likewise, when a Palestinian power-sharing arrangement was negotiated in the Saudi-brokered Mecca deal of February 2007, it was opposed and actively undermined. An opportunity was again missed for reframing Hamas’s options. The situation is most decisively effected by paralysis in addressing the bigger issue—the need for de-occupation and Palestinian statehood alongside secure borders for Israel.

A post-Gaza reconfiguration of Middle East policy may not come with the hugs and handshakes of past peace deals. It may look more like a begrudging separation with hard borders, international guarantees, and even NATO forces deployed, as well as strong incentive packages for both sides. It will require local conflict-resolution and regional de-escalation components. Crucially, it will demand an American rethink and a jettisoning of the certainties of neocon dogma, support of credible mediators where possible (sometimes European, sometimes regional such as Qatar or Turkey), and finally, frank discussions between the U.S. and its regional allies—and that does not just mean Israel.

January 18, 2009

Lull After the Storm

This is a piece co-written with my colleague Amjad Atallah, who co-directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. This also appears on the Guardian online.  

After exactly three weeks of Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli unilateral ceasefire declaration came into effect on Saturday night. While that is a very welcome development, particularly for the civilians of Gaza, it leaves open as many question as it answers. The steps taken by a series of actors, including the combatants and their neighbours and supporters, will determine whether or not this actually leads to a de-escalation and end to hostilities to what has been to a horrendously bloody start to 2009.

Can the ceasefire work?

The unilateral nature of the Israeli declaration is no coincidence. In Saturday's declaration of a ceasefire, Israel is hoping to send the message that Hamas is not a legitimate actor.

So who is the ceasefire actually with? It is, not coincidentally, consistent to some extent with the Egyptian-Turkish-Hamas negotiations which called for a ceasefire for 10 days during which the parties would agree to border crossing mechanisms, followed by an Israeli withdrawal, and an opening of the borders to humanitarian and economic aid.

However, by making the ceasefire a unilateral affair, accompanied only by an arrangement with the US (with whom Israel signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on Friday regarding the prevention of weapons smuggling), Israel can continue its attempts to politically isolate and ostracise the Hamas government in Gaza.

That obviously serves the election campaign narrative of the Israeli governing coalition - yet if Hamas has no political stake in maintaining the ceasefire, it obviously will have little incentive to keep the peace. No one watching the news in the last weeks will have missed Hamas officials shuttling back and forth to Cairo and Doha for both the private and public relations component of preparing a ceasefire. There was a practical reason for the diplomatic activity that included them – they were the ones ruling Gaza.

The diplomatic challenge now will be to provide Hamas with its ladder to climb down – and the crucial ingredients of this are a short timetable for an IDF withdrawal from Gaza and guarantees regarding the opening of border crossings to Gaza in a predictable and ongoing fashion.

But there is also no third party mechanism on the ground to shepherd the two parties through this very dangerous period. A continued IDF presence in Gaza almost guarantees ongoing hostilities. Even if these are of a more sporadic nature then what we witnessed over the last three weeks, there will be a constant risk of escalation. There will be three necessary steps for securing the ceasefire: (1) getting both sides to immediately cease hostilities, (2) ensuring the IDF withdrawal and removing Israeli troops immediately from Palestinian population centres, (3) putting the broader ceasefire package in place which involves amongst other things, opening Gaza and preventing weapons getting in. Beyond that, of course, the underlying issues of the conflict and of the occupation will have to be addressed.

What next for Gaza and a divided Palestinian polity?

The most immediate need is for a massive humanitarian effort to help the injured, the newly homeless and destitute, and to deal with the current health crisis. Many of the some 5,000 injured may very well die in the coming days without immediate medical intervention. The international community will need to make this a priority or risk having the death toll continue to rise even after an end to the bombing.

But very early on, the question will arise of what is the governing address in Gaza, including who is to act as the interface for aid and assistance provision. Aid distribution and assistance will be made much more difficult by the fact that most of the institutional and physical infrastructure of Palestinian governance in Gaza has actually been destroyed or very badly damaged (ministry buildings, police stations, jails, even schools and hospitals). Much, but not all of this, can be channeled through UNRWA and other UN agencies. Still, any effort in Gaza will have to deal in some way with Hamas.

Hamas has been widely recognised since it took power as having provided an effective and functioning central government address, albeit a controversial one. Hamas has largely restored law and order and effectively imposed discipline (and imposed a ceasefire while it was in fact being honoured) on both its own militia and that of other factions- the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Resistance Committees, and Fatah, although in the case of the latter this has taken the form of political suppression.

The question of acknowledging and dealing with the reality of Hamas versus attempting to forcibly remove it remains the same today as it has been since the Hamas election victory and its assumption of exclusive power in Gaza. The difference today is that this will now be played out against the backdrop of a devastated and enraged Gazan landscape, one in which the test-tube conditions now exist for al-Qaida-style jihadists to gain a stronger foothold.

If the West continues with its current policy then the temptation will be to use donor reconstruction assistance as a stealth instrument to achieve regime change. The Palestinian Authority's President Abbas and prime minister Salam Fayyad do have a role in rebuilding Gaza but that can either be done as part of a genuine effort at national reconciliation or the continuation of a policy that has failed dismally.

As the West considers how to assist Gaza in its moment of most need, it must belatedly heed the advice of the likes of Israel's former Mossad chief Ephraim HaLevy, former US secretary of state Colin Powell, former Middle East envoy General Anthony Zinni, Sir Jeremy Greenstock and many others, and find direct and indirect ways to engage Hamas and encourage putting the Palestinian Humpty Dumpty together again (It's worth noting also that there is a sense in certain European quarters of Gaza and West Bank reconstruction assistance being a Groundhog Day budget, a request that keeps getting repeated after every round of destruction).

In many ways, this might be a decisive moment on the internal Palestinian front. The current Fatah leadership has been weakened in many Palestinian eyes by appearing to be an irrelevant bystander during this crisis. Indeed, there have been prominent voices of dissent from within Fatah, such as Marwan Barghouthi confidant Kadura Fares and former security chief Jibril Rajoub. There was even a joint statement by all Palestinian parliamentary factions criticising the Palestinian Authority's handling of demonstrations and opposition in the West Bank and its suppression of "freedom of expression and democracy." Will Fatah try to use this moment to forge a new unity government or will its supporters see this as an opportunity to try to replace Hamas politically?

Hamas too has its own internal calculations to make. As a political movement it has been strengthened even as it has been militarily weakened. But hard questions will be asked within the movement regarding the extent to which they share responsibility for what has happened in Gaza. It will not be surprising if Hamas enters into a process of consultation, rethinks and potential leadership shifts over the coming months.

As Israel focuses during the next week on its internal politics, so too might the Palestinians, this being perhaps one of the last chances to forge some unity and pull division back from the brink of being irredeemable. The more independent groups, such as Mustafa Barghouthi and his Mubadara party, as well as the more independent voices within Fatah and Hamas, and NGO and civil society leaders will need to rise to the occasion and take a lead role in this. This might well determine whether a potential US-led effort to forge a broad Middle East peace will have the advantage of a relatively unified Palestinian polity or whether a resolution will need to be promoted without true Palestinian representation.

The impact on Israel: war and elections (or why the two shouldn't mix)

In the lead-up to the ceasefire declaration, the government PR machine in Israel was working overtime, telling its citizens what a success this has been. A series of reports appeared about Hamas collapsing, of its poor performance in the fighting and of the regional and international support for Israel's actions. The conduct of this war and the election campaign which formed its domestic political backdrop have never been far apart. That campaign, nominally suspended for the three weeks of fighting, will now be rejoined in full force as the outcomes of Operation Cast Lead are dissected.

An unusual challenge that faced Israel's leadership from the moment it launched this campaign was the need to emerge with not just one but two Israeli victory narratives and victory photos – one each for the defence minister and foreign minister Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni, who will lead their respective competing parties in the elections on February 10. That particular acrobatic feat was achieved when Livni could claim her supposed diplomatic victory and there being a ceasefire without Hamas alongside the more obvious and equally suspect claim of military victory for Barak.

Both, though, will share a message of this having been an effective campaign in downgrading Hamas, removing much of its missile threat, with minimal Israeli losses while sustaining strong support from Israel's allies and having the sound judgment to know when to call it a day and before resigning oneself to an indefinite reoccupation of Gaza.

Most of the push-back against that position will come from the right. They will argue that Israel did not go far enough, that the IDF was not allowed to finish the job and totally annihilate Hamas, that rockets were still being fired on the last day, that the hostage Gilad Shalit is still held captive, and of course, that this should all have been done a long time ago.

The Israeli left will offer a politically quieter, although morally more booming, critique that the war was unnecessary and its aims could have been achieved without fighting as they are the same that existed on December 19. Thus far, the Gaza war has significantly strengthened Barak and his Labour party but not enough to challenge the front-runners Netanyahu of Likud and Livni of Kadima with the former still maintaining a slight lead. Ultimately though, the world of political campaign rhetoric will look rather divorced from the real world implications for Israel of what has happened over the last three weeks. If one defines national security in an irresponsibly narrow way, then yes, Hamas does indeed now have fewer missiles overall and long-range missiles in particular, and a sense of deterrence, at least as far as the Palestinians are concerned, has been restored after the battles in Lebanon in 2006.

But at what costs?

Israel's allies have been weakened and a more hard-line, anti-Israel stance has found new resonance and new adherents. All this should matter to Israel's long-term security. Perhaps most disturbing has been the sense, amidst the civilian losses and suffering, of a deep absence of a moral compass, something that 41 years as an occupier can do to a country and that many feared would be the most harmful effect for Israel of this unresolved conflict. Israel's image internationally has not been at such a low point since Lebanon in 1982, and even Egypt's president excluded the Israeli leadership from its Sharm summit. The destruction has created new levels and new generations of hostility toward Israel.

The regional swing vote

While the Gaza crisis has been mostly about the local, immediate dimensions of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it has fuelled region-wide tensions. While it is too reductionist to view this as a proxy war, it has certainly pitted two rival regional camps against each other. The two camps in the Arab and Muslim world have roughly divided into those who believe that Palestinian freedom can only be achieved through resistance, and those who believe that only diplomatic non-violent engagement will accomplish this aim. It may be a false choice in that neither has actually created a Palestinian state or created a peace agreement between Israel and her neighbours.

Nevertheless, those who have argued adamantly for a diplomatic approach have again been set back. The Arab world and its collective institutions, notable the Arab League, have been shown at their most dysfunctional. For three weeks, the Arab League failed to convene its leaders despite the events in Gaza dominating Arab media around the clock, and despite mass-street protests across the Arab world. America's government allies were caught between a rock and a hard place, being hostile to Hamas but unable to identify with Israel. They found themselves ever more alienated from their own public.

Even when key Arab leaders at the UN Security Council helped pass resolution 1860, little changed on the ground. Perhaps the most interesting aspect has been to follow what one might call the regional swing vote, actors that are not part of the Iran/Syria/Hamas/Hezbollah camp on the one hand or the Egypt/PA/Saudi/Jordanian camp on the other. The mood in the swing camp was summed up by Qatar hosting a consultative session of the Arab League on Friday in Doha with the Iranian and Syrian presidents and Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal in attendance, alongside Turkish, Lebanese, Algerian and Organization of Islamic conference senior representatives. This is indicative of where the popular mood has been with secular nationalists, reformists, and democrats siding with Islamists in their support for Hamas as the representative of the Palestinians in Gaza.

The US will be faced with the choice of either continuing this dichotomy, and the conflict which has so exacerbated regional tensions, or whether it will seek to shuffle the deck by addressing the conflict at its root while engaging region-wide to address the specific national interests of various parties consistent with its own national security interests.

The new Obama administration and the future of the peace process

While the Obama inauguration is probably not the only factor that determined the timing of this ceasefire, it is hard not to see a connection with Israel almost certainly not wanting an ongoing Gaza crisis to rain on Tuesday's parade and to force their conflict with the Palestinians any higher up the new administration's agenda than it already is. Nevertheless, solidifying the ceasefire and the aftermath of this conflict will exercise the Obama team from day one in office, forcing them to make early choices in how they will approach the Israel/Palestine issue. The Obama administration will likely have to ensure the full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, follow-up on US support for weapons smuggling efforts, while simultaneously taking a position on Gaza reconstruction efforts.

The backdrop will be whether US assistance will be used to build Palestinian internal reconciliation, to help with a broader effort to finally secure Israel's and America's security through a broad inclusive peace deal, or to continue the Bush policy of promoting divisions in the hope of continuing to help Israel manage the occupation at great cost to both American and Israeli national security interests.

This much seems clear: the Annapolis approach is badly in need of a rethink. Indeed, the Annapolis process has been one of the less innocent victims of Operation Cast Lead. Beyond this immediate crisis, the bigger Israeli/Palestinian conflict looms.

A post-Gaza peace effort may not come with the hugs and handshakes of past deals. It may look more like a begrudging separation with hard borders, international guarantees, and even Nato forces deployed, as well as strong incentive packages for both sides. Rather than the friendly peace imagined by Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993, the US may need to force a Kosovo or East Timor-style peace with reconciliation to come later. In either case, it will mean finally achieving de-occupation and Palestinian statehood along with a secure Israel and recognized borders. Crucially, it means moving beyond the neo-conservative dogma and the policy it represented that has so destabilised the Middle East for the last eight years.

January 15, 2009

Gaza and the Obama Effect—Ending the War

This piece can also be read at Huffington Post

Barack Obama is not even President yet but he may have just played a central role in getting to a ceasefire in the current Gaza Israel crisis--just by being there.  All the signals are that we are in a final and ugly escalatory cycle in advance of hostilities being ceased and that the proximity of this war ending to next week's inauguration of the new President is not coincidental.

Here's where things stand:

Egyptian mediation is now reaching a ceasefire package building on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1860, and barring last minute hiccups, it is likely to deliver a breakthrough in the very near future.  The elements of that ceasefire package are well known:  ending military actions and rocket strikes, withdrawing IDF forces, opening the Gaza border crossings, and preventing future weapons smuggling into Gaza.  In fact, one of the most painful truths of this conflict is that these ingredients were known in advance and had the current, frantic diplomacy been conducted one month ago, this terrible human suffering could probably have all been avoided.  The details are now being hashed out with the comings and goings of Israeli and Hamas officials in Cairo.

On the Israeli side, there have been fierce disagreements within both the political and military leaderships since Operation Cast Lead was launched.  Defense Minister Barak apparently supported a truce during the very first days of the attack.  Foreign Minister Livni later got on board for a de-escalation, and with the military chief of staff widely reported to be unenthusiastic about an entrenched and prolonged re-occupation of Gaza, the Prime Minister seems finally ready to bring this to an end.

In recent days, the Israeli media has seemed to be building to this crescendo with generous helpings of propaganda with regards to Israel's achievements and the of enfeeblement of Hamas (the true picture is likely to be more mixed).

The Defense Minister also scored his victory photo today with the killing of Hamas Interior Minister Said Siam. While that is the picture most Israelis will be looking at, the rest of the world is likely to be pouring over further bombings of U.N. facilities and a death toll that is now over a thousand, of which according to Israeli estimates, only 360 are Hamas fighters (according to Ofer Shelah in the Maariv newspaper, quoting Israeli military sources). Nevertheless, the war has given Ehud Barak and his Labor party a boost in the run-up to February's elections.

The war has been popular with Israelis and a key element in delaying a ceasefire has been the need for not just one, but two, victory narratives and photos--one each for the two senior ministers whose parties are competing in elections (Livni and Barak).  By the way, it's worth remembering that the Iraq War was just as popular with the American public after three weeks as this action is with the Israeli public.  But even if Israel ends now, the longer term consequences are likely to be as debilitating for Israel in this situation as they have been for the US in Iraq.

According to the latest news, Livni is now likely to get her own victory photo, too.  The Israeli Foreign Minister is on her way to Washington to sign a memorandum of understanding with Secretary Rice regarding American commitments to assist in preventing weapons smuggling into Gaza.  It will almost certainly be Rice's last act in office.

Hamas, too, is busy preparing its own victory narrative.  They will claim to have withstood the Israeli onslaught and to have deterred the Israelis from entering deeper into the urban warfare awaiting them in Gazan cities.  They will assert that despite international efforts to isolate Hamas, they have been negotiating the terms of the ceasefire and that they have achieved their key demand of lifting the closure on Gaza (it's worth noting that according to Israeli's former Mossad chief and former national security adviser, Efraim Halevy, "If Israel's goal were to remove the threat of rockets from the residents of southern Israel, opening the border crossings would have ensured such quiet for a generation").  Expect Hamas to also emerge politically strengthened with President Abbas having looked like a bystander throughout this conflict and even being perceived by many as complicit in the destruction wrought on Gaza. The terrible images emerging from Gaza, and that may get worse (when foreign camera crews finally get into Gaza and the extent of damage becomes known) are likely to generate further sympathy.

If a ceasefire is becoming imminent, then it is fair to assume that while the dynamics of the conflict (Israeli recoil from fully re-occupying Gaza), and the diplomatic effort have played a role, the key element to timing here is the approaching Obama presidency.

First of all, the various actors--and one imagines Israel in particular--will not want to piss on Obama's parade this Tuesday.  More substantively, there is an expectation that the new president would have felt compelled to immediately intervene in this situation.  While there is an assumption that the Obama administration will remain strongly supportive of Israel, one can also anticipate a more thoughtful articulation of what serves American interests in the Middle East, how the close Israel-America relationship should be managed, and the taking of corresponding efforts to immediately de-escalate this spiraling crisis.  It might be pushing the envelope to call Obama the peacemaker here, but it's hard to deny that his impending entrance to the world stage has an effect.

If this conflict does now end (as one desperately hopes it will), then it will of course be the Obama administration that is left to deal with the fall out.  The memo of understanding, due to be signed by Israel and the US tomorrow, is one part of that.  It seems to be a smart move by Condoleezza Rice to give this to the Israeli Foreign Minister in order to get her fully on board for ending the war.  If it is indeed mostly political theater, an election campaign photo-op for Livni, then so be it.  But if it amounts to more, then this might well be one final poison chalice that the Bushies are bequeathing to 44.  If America is to play an active military role in the Sinai, then expect complications and a scenario with all the makings of nurturing over time another insurgency with possible blowback, and even with consequences for the shaky and unpopular regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Then there is the rest of the post-Gaza mess: a humanitarian emergency to alleviate, the further weakening of America's regional allies, notably including the Palestinian Authority, and a new wave of anger in the region directed at America and its Israeli ally. The first challenge is to make the elements of the ceasefire actually work - ensure an end to hostilities, an IDF withdrawal, and functioning border arrangements. Immediately following that comes the need to rebuild and rehabilitate Gaza which will require an international effort. Essential here will be to avoid the temptation of using reconstruction assistance as a blunt instrument to advance regime change in Gaza but rather to shape this as a core ingredient in facilitating the beginning of a serious Palestinian national reconciliation. That means changing course on the previous failed policy and encouraging - and not vetoing - third party mediation efforts between Fatah and Hamas.

But it is the bigger picture of the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will continue to sap US credibility and security until a workable equilibrium can be found. That will require a realistic approach not only to Gaza and its rulers but also to the other 94% of the Palestinian territories - the West Bank and East Jerusalem (the '67 territories) - an approach that finally guarantees Israeli security within recognizable borders and Palestinian independence and de-occupation. US leadership will be a prerequisite for achieving it.

This issue has forced itself early onto the Obama agenda and if it returns to the back burner than it is guaranteed to periodically explode in everyone's face, sucking America in and costing America dear.  A better option is to push for a workable solution now. Nothing will more dramatically and positively affect the prospects for successful US diplomacy in the vital challenges it faces in this most dangerously destabilized of regions.

January 14, 2009

Our Man in Tel Aviv

This article appears as a book review in the newest issue of the Washington Monthly.

Innocent Abroad:
An Intimate Account of American Peace
Diplomacy in the Middle East

by Martin Indyk
Simon & Schuster, 512 pp.

Just the thought of another book about Middle East policy under President Bill Clinton might make the most stout-hearted reader quake; but he or she would be well advised to consider Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East, by Martin Indyk. Indyk, who was (twice) U.S. ambassador to Israel, and now directs the Saban Center of Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, has managed to write a new, very readable chronicle of Mideast policy during the Clinton years. Rather than focusing narrowly on the Oslo Accords, Camp David, and all things Israeli-Palestinian, Indyk methodically works us through the broader Israeli-Arab peace process, Iran, and Iraq as they feed off one another in a regional context. It is precisely those policy linkages that will have to be redrawn by the new Obama administration, and that theme is clearly uppermost in Indyk’s mind.

The timing of the publication of Innocent Abroad is fortuitous. Indyk, who was responsible for Near Eastern affairs at both the State Department and the National Security Council during the Clinton administration, is particularly well positioned to advise a new Democratic president gearing up to tackle a Middle East in devastating disarray, especially given the recent events in Gaza; and he is doing so with a Clinton at his side at Foggy Bottom. All good reasons for a little recap of how the last Democratic president approached the region. (It’s also worth noting that Indyk has remained close to the Clintons and advised the New York senator during her presidential bid.)

The book at times has a disjointed feel—it was apparently edited down from a much larger manuscript—giving the impression that linking material is sometimes missing. As a narrative, Innocent Abroad has something for everyone—hawks, realists, neoconservatives, and peaceniks alike—and there are plenty of "gotcha" moments, but they are sufficiently varied as to provide sustenance to both right and left. That can be frustrating. Indyk’s conclusions, however, are less polygamous: American efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict are central to re-stabilizing the region, and America should discard the policy of regime change as it engages with both Syria and Iran.

The book reminds us of the series of peace breakthroughs in the 1990s—the various Oslo agreements, for instance, under Israeli Labor and Likud leaders: Gaza-Jericho, Oslo B, Hebron, and Wye River. In addition, there was the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty, and real progress in defining the parameters for a possible comprehensive deal between Israel and Syria, alongside the largely effective dual containment of Iran and Iraq (a policy framing of Indyk’s own invention). Indyk also points to the shortcomings of the Clinton era and to the weighty, unfinished business on the Obama menu. While he is often scathing about Bush’s Middle East policy, Indyk notes the not insignificant ways—from the extension of the no-fly zones over Iraq to the support of an official policy of regime change—in which the Clinton administration helped to seed the ground for the disaster that followed.

If President Obama is to pursue a policy of "I want to end the mindset that got us into war in the first place," then he will also have to jettison some of that mindset’s inheritance from the Clinton years. Doing that with a Clinton as his most senior diplomat is not unrealistic, particularly if the evolution in Indyk’s thinking is at all indicative of Hillary’s approach. And, as Indyk reminds us, the United States limits both its options and its influence when it is talking to fewer actors in the region.

Indyk’s recounting of Israel and Syria’s attempts at a rapprochement makes for some compelling reading. The not inconsiderable (although not exclusive) blame Indyk assigns to then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for the failure of those talks has already caused a stir in Israel, where the Hebrew version of Innocent Abroad was released last summer. His blow-by-blow account of the Israeli-Syrian process, in particular from 1999 to 2000, of the summit at Shepherdstown, and of Clinton’s fury at Barak for "gaming" him, is riveting. (Barak had insisted on a summit with the Syrians and then backtracked on his own proposals. When he again called on Clinton to host a parley with the Palestinians at Camp David, the U.S. dutifully played host. This time around, as Indyk tells it, Barak informed him on the flight to Andrews Air Force base that "he had not had time to prepare for the meeting." This in spite of the fact that "he alone had insisted upon" the confab.) The ultimate demise of these efforts came on March 26, 2000, in Geneva, when an exhausted American president (on his way back from Asia) met an ailing Syrian leader, Hafez al-Assad, who passed away just two months later.

Still, it is the section on the Syria track where Innocent Abroad is groundbreaking. Indyk shares largely new material on the details of talks between Syria’s Riad Daoudi and Israel’s General Uri Saguy as they negotiate the thorny issues of demarcating a future Israeli-Syrian border and re-delineating the 1967 boundaries between the two states.

As a new administration takes office, there is some debate as to whether the United States should give priority to peace talks between Israel and the Syrians or Israel and the Palestinians. Indyk suggests that resolving the Palestinian conflict is the priority (and I agree with him on this), but that the U.S. should also reengage bilaterally with Syria and support the ongoing Israeli-Syrian talks currently being mediated by Turkey. He persuasively explains the effect that progress with Syria would have both in reducing Iran’s regional leverage and in facilitating progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian deal—by, for instance, causing Hamas to recalibrate its regional options and probably soften its negotiating stance. In doing so, Indyk rejects the "Syria first" line sometimes promoted in Washington.

I agree with Indyk’s logic, but with one caveat: Indyk seconds the conventional wisdom that Israel cannot pursue deals on the Syrian and Palestinian tracks simultaneously, but I believe this thinking may well be outdated. In fact, only a comprehensive deal may now make sense, one that both closes bilateral peace deals between Israel and its neighbors and articulates a regional peace based on the Arab League/Saudi peace initiative of 2002, whereby Israel would have normal and secure relations with all of the Arab world.

While the best of Innocent Abroad is in Indyk’s prescriptions for a future Middle East policy, there are some charming stories he tells of his tenure in the diplomatic service. There is, for instance, the special handshaking technique developed by U.S. diplomats to ensure that the "no-kissing rule" was adhered to when greeting PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Or the sometimes extreme lengths that Secretary of State Warren Christopher would go to in order to avoid overnighting in Arab capitals because of his delicate stomach.

In his concluding chapter, Indyk wisely reprises the Clinton Parameters, presented by the departing president in December 2000, offering the only official American guidelines ever written for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The document clearly outlines what a Mideast peace deal might look like and the role America would need to play in making that happen. Indyk suggests a few tweaks to the Clinton Parameters (which he had a hand in preparing), notably when he suggests that a special international regime be created in the Holy Basin–Old City area of Jerusalem. Some of the recommendations (such as engaging in peace efforts early in a new administration, and not waiting, as Bush did, until year eight) would be on most people’s checklist. Others are more innovative in the Washington context: Indyk supports a more active role for the Arab states. To build Palestinian national reconciliation he would like to see the deployment of multinational forces to help facilitate the creation of a Palestinian state (without replacing one occupying power with another), and have international support for Arab efforts to co-opt rather than confront Hamas. (I would be in favor of all of these, including the last, although unlike Indyk I would suggest that no single Arab state play an exclusive role in mediating internal Palestinian dialogue.)

Martin Indyk is candid and self-critical enough to acknowledge that the peace team sometimes had "tin ears" when it came to understanding the true intentions of Israel’s leaders and were "poorly informed" on intra-Palestinian politics. Unfortunately, his book occasionally lapses into its own tin-eared moments. When there are dismissive references to the Palestinian "sense of entitlement" to all the territories occupied in 1967 or to a "perception of increased settlement activity" during the 1990s (the settler population did increase, by more than 100,000), the credibility of the book is harmed, as it is when the Israeli-Jordanian peace and King Hussein’s outreach to the Israeli public is described as a model for securing future Israeli concessions. What concessions? Israel essentially withdrew from no land and gave up no settlements in making peace with Jordan.

These nuances may be trivial, but they can skew the U.S.-Israel relationship or U.S. policy in a way that is utterly unhelpful to both U.S. and Israeli interests. Innocent Abroad is full of anecdotes (some with explicit lessons, some implied, others perhaps unintentional) that, taken together, produce an inescapable policy prescription: that the management of the U.S.-Israel relationship needs to be recalibrated, for everyone’s benefit. We are told that on many occasions the Clinton administration "took an Israeli idea and turned it into an American proposal." The result of this was that the very deals from which Israel, the United States, and others would have so greatly benefited were made more difficult to achieve. America’s diplomats are frequently depicted as dancing to a tune spun out in Jerusalem. And the outcome is rarely pretty, for either the U.S. or Israel. (It is notable that American presidents have a slightly better track record when it comes to handling recalcitrant leaders of the right—no small thing, given the prospects that Benjamin Netanyahu will return to the Israeli premiership after February’s election.)

To suggest that the United States play the role of honest broker in the Middle East is almost seen as taboo in American political discourse, yet a reasonable reading of this book’s narration of the Clinton years suggests that only by taking a more balanced approach (note: more balanced, not totally balanced) can the U.S. be an effective broker. Part of that will depend on the team assembled to handle these matters under Obama. As Indyk reminds us, Clinton’s peace team was described in the Arab media as "the five rabbis," and a bit of diversity would certainly not be a bad thing. But that diversity is as much about openness to different approaches as it is about backgrounds. For example, take Robert Malley or Daniel Kurtzer, both "rabbis" according to the above definition, and who both served under Clinton in different capacities and have spent the last eight years challenging parts of the conventional thinking and talking to a more inclusive array of regional actors. While that might make them controversial picks, it also makes such voices indispensable around the U.S. policymaking table. Including Malley and/or Kurtzer in the Obama administration would send a signal that some of the lessons contained in Innocent Abroad have been internalized.

New thinking is also required in Congress. When discussing Iran policy, Indyk describes how "our own zealots on Capitol Hill" managed to split the United States from its European allies by passing the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act in 1996, thereby undermining Clinton administration efforts to maintain a united front in containing Iran. The knee-jerk congressional habit of running to the right of the executive (any executive—Congress even outflanked Bush from the right in opposing Palestinian aid, for instance) needs to be redressed.

Indyk is very critical of the Bush policy on Iran, of subcontracting the negotiations to the Europeans and placing preconditions on direct U.S.-Iranian talks, favoring engagement across the range of bilateral issues. The point that he constantly returns to in discussing the Iran file, both in the past and in the future, is the need for a credible American initiative to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict as a vital component in reducing Iran’s regional influence and leverage. A book that is organized around the tapestry of interacting issues in the Middle East, in which "everything is connected here," inevitably ends up advocating for a more thoughtful connecting of the dots in regional policy, and the central dot is the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

I would read Indyk as an antidote to the naysayers who insist that "[t]he time for peace isn’t ripe, Israelis and Palestinians are in disarray, little can be done." It is not enough to say that one needs to effectively address Israel-Palestine; one must also chart a course of how to do it: ripeness can be created, the regional strategic context can be reshaped, and many of the ingredients are contained in Innocent Abroad. I might add some, and blend them slightly differently, but Indyk gives us a good baseline recipe with which to start experimenting.


January 12, 2009

Olmert Slams Condi… Advanced Classes in Chutzpah

This piece also appears at  TPM Cafe

Speaking in southern Israel today, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert revealed details of a call he apparently placed to President Bush which led to the US changing its vote on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1860 calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and boasting how he had “shamed” the US secretary of state and laid down the law with the president (full report below). AIPAC has also slammed the Bush administration for not vetoing U.N. SCR 1860, as MJ noted earlier.

The first thing to say is that a ceasefire is vital and the U.N. resolution if it helps deliver an end to the violence, rocket-fire and the human suffering, the opening of the blockade on Gaza, and the prevention of weapon smuggling, then it is an important contribution worthy of support. Secondly, Secretary Rice would do best to respond to this act of chutzpah by using her remaining week in office to actually get that resolution implemented and deliver a meaningful ceasefire package – she can still do it and go out on a higher note than having been “Colin Powell”-ed by her own president at the U.N. and dissed by a foreign leader. But the real point is this: what Olmert said is more than just mind-boggling chutzpah – it is deeply irresponsible, insulting and will be a boomerang for Israel. Here’s the full quote and report:

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was left shamefaced after President George W. Bush ordered her to abstain in a key U.N. vote on the Gaza war, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday.

"She was left shamed...a resolution that she prepared and arranged, and in the end she did not vote in favor," Olmert said in a speech in the southern town of Ashkelon.

"In the night between Thursday and Friday, when the secretary of state wanted to lead the vote on a ceasefire at the Security Council, we did not want her to vote in favor," Olmert said.

"I said 'get me President Bush on the phone'. They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care. 'I need to talk to him now'. He got off the podium and spoke to me.

"I told him the United States could not vote in favor. It cannot vote in favor of such a resolution. He immediately called the secretary of state and told her not to vote in favor." (AFP, 1/12/2009)

I have been outspokenly supportive of many of the things Olmert has courageously said as PM of Israel (I even posted a collection of them on my blog). I have been less enthusiastic, to put it mildly, of the two wars that Olmert has waged as prime minister, the incessant settlement expansion he has overseen, and the basic gap between words and deeds. But these latest comments are just remarkable. Olmert is known to have a personality with an arrogant streak. Most likely that was on display rather than a deeply thought through political move. Olmert was speaking in Hebrew in the southern city of Ashkelon but surely he couldn’t imagine that this would not be picked up by the world’s media. The repercussions - especially when heaped on top of everything that has happened in Gaza now (and I agree that is much more important than what Olmert said) - will be ugly. Here are a few thoughts on those repercussions to leave you with (also check out my colleague Steve Clemons at his blog, The Washington Note):

1. This episode will play out for a very long time in the Arab world and its media, and it will be used to confirm every conspiracy and stereotype about the tail wagging the dog when it comes to Israel and US foreign policy in the Middle East. You can imagine it. The American president takes his instructions via phone from Israel. Oy! This is all we need. 

2. This is not a way to publicly treat your friends. What example does this set for Israel with its other friends when the prime minister embarrasses an outgoing president and secretary of state in this way? Message to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton: whatever you do for Israel over the next four to eight years, don’t be surprised if this is the gratitude you get. Not a clever message.

3. How is this likely to affect the hand-over of power in the US? Here’s a speculative thought for you: when Clinton handed over the reigns of power to Dubya and Colin Powell, legend has it that his parting message on the Middle East was, “Don’t trust Arafat.” What one imagines might be Secretary Rice’s parting message to Hillary Clinton on who should be trusted?

4. When world leaders take phone calls from their Israeli counterparts and are convinced to take on-board an Israeli position and act on it, should they now always expect to be similarly publicly humiliated?

Anyway, like I say, this was an act of stupidity but a revealing one. If only it could spur the ongoing administration to get a ceasefire and the incoming administration to encourage a more two-way friendship with Israel, most importantly, one that ends an occupation that is the source of so much that has gone wrong for Israel, not least the kind of hubris on display again today.

January 5, 2009

Five comments on the Gaza crisis and what to do

This piece also appears at TPM Cafe

On day 10 of the Gaza crisis I would like to weigh in with some thoughts on (1) what needs to happen next and what a more rational, more thoughtful pro-Israel position might look like, (2) on this human tragedy that is unfolding and how to create incentives to sustain a future ceasefire (3) on the bigger picture of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and some of the nonsense propaganda on “what would you expect America to do under these circumstances,” (4) how this is an American problem too in an already dangerously destabilized region that so impacts American security and finally (5) how congress needs to give political space to the incoming Obama administration to get to work on a very challenging Middle East, and not to box Obama in. 

1. WHAT NEXT AND WHAT'S PRO-ISRAEL: There is a heated debate within the pro-Israel community regarding the Gaza crisis, and I am very much in agreement with the position of J Street, (and others such as APN, Brit Tzedek, and IPF) representing I think a mainstream, responsible line. Here, for me, is a key point – US political posturing should not deny Israel or the Palestinians an exit strategy. 

Israel's leaders are for now rejecting a ceasefire.  That is to be expected.  Of course the Israeli leadership has to sound tough and uncompromising in their positions, that's part of the dynamic of who has a winning narrative and is of course part of the domestic politics (especially with elections coming up on February 10th).  This should not be confused with a cold look at the respective interests at play – and for Israel getting bogged down in Gaza is a distinctly bad idea. 

The way this is set up politically means that Israel has to have a ceasefire imposed on it – this seems to be what Defense minister Barak is looking for and he favored the French proposal for a truce last week even before the ground invasion began.   The speculation among Israeli commentators is that an international demand for a ceasefire is pretty much the only exit strategy Israel has up its sleeve, even suggesting that Israel may intentionally exacerbate a humanitarian crisis in order to force the international community to act (that was the expert analysis on Israeli channel 10 TV last night).  Things are made even more complicated by the fact two of the ministers leading the country are competing in the elections next month – MoD Barak and FM Livni.  So it's not just Israel that needs a winning narrative – each minister needs his/her own particular winning narrative.  So an outside push is a prerequisite for ending this. 

In this respect it is reminiscent of the dynamic in Lebanon in 2006 where it took 33 days to get a U.N. Security Council Resolution (1701) and an end to violence. This time on day 10, things may, in some short-term respects, look good for Israel but this is unlikely to be the case by day 33.  An America that again sits on the sidelines and does not help work towards an urgent ceasefire is doing Israel no favors. 

 So what needs to happen next? The elements for a ceasefire are known - ending the rocket strikes, violence and military incursions in a sustainable way, ending the blockade on Gaza, preventing new arms from entering Gaza and international monitoring for these arrangements/border crossings -- now they need to be stitched together.  For that to work, Hamas needs to be a party to the ceasefire arrangements.  The alternatives – ongoing Israeli occupation, Israel handing control to the PA or international/Arab forces are either highly unrealistic or highly undesirable and dangerous.  However, if Israel does get tempted to go for regime change and removing Hamas then these become the only options that are left, and Gaza will descend into the kind of lawless chaos which is a gift to al-Qaeda style Salafists and will create a Somalia on its doorstep. 

2.  THE HUMAN TRAGEDY: There is a dire humanitarian situation unfolding here – irrespective of one's views on Israel or Hamas, this needs to be addressed. Not even the bare minimum of supplies are able to enter Gaza.  In addition to the over 500 deaths, one quarter of whom were women and children and many more civilians including police, hospitals are running on emergency power, water and sewage systems are collapsing and basic necessities are unavailable (see the UN OCHA report and ICRC for more information). 

And in this respect Gaza is not Southern Lebanon, there is no hinterland for the civilian population to escape to as there was with Lebanon.  Gazan borders with Egypt and Israel are totally blocked and that only leaves the sea – where there is an Israeli naval blockade. 

The blockade on Gaza is nothing new and this is crucial in also understanding the political situation.  Since Israel's departure in 2005 and even during the 6 month ceasefire a closure was also imposed on Gaza (sometimes more harsh, sometimes less so).  Collective punishment is never good from a moral perspective but it also makes no political sense – it meant that no incentives were created among the Palestinian public to support a continued ceasefire and to act as a pressure against those firing rockets.  Hamas is attentive to public pressure and this basic equation was ignored. From the Israeli side, after 6 months in which there was no fatality, and life began to return to normal for the southern communities, there is now rocket fire extending further than ever and schools are closed. 

3.  REMEMBER THE BIGGER PICTURE - this crisis has to be firmly understood in the context of the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yes the conflict has been exploited on many sides and certainly by Iran and other hardliners in the region but if the unaddressed Palestinian grievance did not exist then it would not be there to exploit (also by Hamas although my reading of Hamas is that first and foremost they have a nationalist Palestinian agenda that would be sufficiently satisfied were there to be real de-occupation for them to end armed resistance). 

The peace process and certainly in its new Annapolis incarnation has failed to deliver and there is an urgent need for a rethink.  Destruction on this scale is hard to describe as an opportunity but it is a reminder that a sham peace process -- that delivers more settlements and checkpoints instead of independence for Palestinians and security for Israelis – cannot produce stability. 

There is also some appalling misinformation being spread – one frequently hears the claim that Israel left Gaza in 2005 in order to build peace but all it received was terror.  I appreciate the Gaza evacuation of 2005 and how difficult it was  and I in no way condone the launching of rockets against civilian targets from Gaza but the unilateral nature of the Gaza withdrawal was a mistake (and I said it at the time) and I don't appreciate this rewriting of history.  Israel at the time did not evacuate Gaza as part of the peace process. Then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon explicitly said that Israel "will stay in the territories that will remain."  His most senior adviser who was in charge of the disengagement, Dov Weisglass, was even more explicit stating that the plan would freeze the peace process and "prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state…it supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so there will not be a political process with the Palestinians." This was brought out by the fact that, as mentioned, Gaza was immediately placed under closure – and those who blame the Gazans for not developing their economy post-occupation should be reminded of that. 

We also frequently hear the claim – what would America do if it came under rocket fire from Canada or Mexico? Again, there can be no justification for rockets targeting Israel's south, and of course America would respond if it were under fire from Canada or Mexico. But let's at least complete the analogy and here is that bigger picture. Gaza constitutes under 6 percent of the '67 territory in which a Palestinian state is supposed to be created (Gaza, West Bank, Palestinian East Jerusalem), about 94 percent remains under occupation so under our scenario 94 percent of Canada or Mexico would have remained under a 40 plus year American occupation with settlements and roadblocks, and with the "liberated" 6 percent still under siege.  Now I like the Mexicans and Canadians as much as the next person but is it totally inconceivable that under such circumstances some of them would have formed hardline armed groups that would even become very popular and use that 6 percent of territory to launch attacks against America? I will leave it to your imagination.  

4.  THIS IS ALSO AN AMERICAN PROBLEM.  There is growing anger directed at the US and potential blowback for the US if it continues to be seen as facilitating the ongoing violence and preventing a ceasefire. There has been an outbreak of popular outrage in the region and well beyond – it is not only being driven by pro-Iranian or pro-Muslim Brotherhood Islamist forces, there are also popular reformist, nationalist, and secular forces involved.  And while it primarily targets Israel, there is also often a focus on the impotence of America's allied Arab regimes and American complicity.  In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim state, the demonstration in Jakarta was outside the American embassy and this has been repeated elsewhere including Lebanon and Malaysia.

It's worth noting that where American troops are stationed and in harms way – Afghanistan and Iraq – there has also been significant popular hostility, including a fatwa from Grand Ayatollah Sistani the preeminent Shia cleric in Iraq calling for action in support for Palestinians.  

To be clear, this is not the America-Israel relationship per se that is the problem (it is for some, but for most this is in the background not the foreground most of the time).   The issue is the outstanding Palestinian grievance (and again for most it’s the basics –statehood, de-occupation, not the 1948 file and the very fact of Israel’s existence). It all explodes in times of crisis like this when America is perceived to be totally indifferent to Palestinian humanity and suffering and inactive or excessively imbalanced in its pursuit of a solution.  This is further destabilizing an already radically destabilized Middle East. 

At the very least, American politicians need to find a language that at the same time is both staunchly supportive of Israel and its security but also able to convincingly empathize with the Palestinians and their predicament. And once the U.S. finds a vocabulary - then it needs to find a policy that can actually start getting a resolution of this crisis - and not the feckless Annapolis effort (hints: encourage Palestinian internal reconciliation, engage with a broader range of regional actors and make this part of a new regional security architecture, focus on de-occupation as a priority, set down American ideas for a solution and actively pursue them, address Israeli security concerns via international forces being temporarily stationed in the new Palestinian state, use the Arab Peace Initiative to help get Israeli and Palestinian buy-in and benefits for both ...etc)  

5.  GIVE THE NEW GUY A CHANCE. The Democrat-led congress should not be boxing in the new Obama administration to a set of failed Middle East policies even before it takes office.  If this crisis is still ongoing on January 20th there will be a huge burden of expectations worldwide on the incoming administration to intervene.  President-elect Obama's credibility moving forward in the Middle East and in his efforts to restabilize the region will be greatly affected by how this crisis in handled. It touches on the iconic litmus test issue for the region - the Palestinians.  Obama's studied silence so far is probably a blessing - he cannot yet make policy, there is no good ceasefire proposal to support and there is pressure on him to spout platitudes which will undermine his future capacity to mediate.

On the bright side by January 20th it is very likely that all sides will want an exit strategy and chances for a diplomatic resolution will be greater.  Then congress will have to give the new administration space to pursue a realistic ceasefire and new set of arrangements.  Many of the statements in congress which mimic the existing Bush strategy are narrowing the room for maneuver of the new president. 

If as one hopes this is resolved by January 20th the Obama administration will have to be picking up the pieces and restoring America's credibility in that region. And again this will require more than the pavlovian and irresponsible pro-Israel rants that are being heard from many quarters today.  It will require a more sophisticated and thoughtful approach to what is pro-Israel and to securing Israel's future in the region, as part of an articulation of American interests and a very different American approach.  Everyone interested in re-stabilizing a region that is so important to American security and to restoring American leadership should be working to create maximum political space in which the new administration can act – not the opposite. Read members of Congress Donna Edwards, Lois Capps, Joe Sestak, Earl Blumenauer, Betty McCollum, and Keith Ellison for examples of how to be thoughtful on the issue and helpful to an Obama Administration that needs to calm the region as it seeks to withdraw from Iraq, reduce the appeal of Salafi jihadism and restore American standing.

And one final thought at the end of a long post – this is so terrible for Israel, the anger it is generating in Palestinians and beyond for future generations, the immorality of this humanitarian crisis, the disaster of potentially getting stuck in Gaza and the fact that this will deliver neither peace nor security for a country that I adopted as my home and that I would dearly love to see enjoy better, much better days. 


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January 1, 2009

Rewrite the Script

This is a piece co-written with my colleague Amjad Atallah, who is joining me to co-direct the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. This also appears on the Guardian online.  

As of Tuesday evening, Israel's air assault on the Gaza Strip, an area only twice the size of Washington DC, and the world's most densely populated territory, counted at least 380 dead Palestinians, including scores of children and over 800 wounded, four dead Israelis, and one dead Egyptian soldier. Demonstrations against Israel and the United States took place in Turkey, Yemen, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Bahrain, Lebanon, the Israeli occupied West Bank, throughout Europe - and even in Israel itself. Demonstrators targeted Arab governments too, notably America's ally, Egypt. And this is only the beginning of the latest Israeli-Arab war.

It will get worse – whenever it wasn't getting better it has always gotten worse. 

For anyone to believe that this time everything will be different, they would have to be incredibly optimistic or foolish. The most likely script will be a variation on previous wars. Israel will "punish" the Arabs in Gaza as they have never been hurt before. Hamas will find ways to attack Israelis, either through rockets or through attacks inside Israel. If there is a ground war, many more civilians will die.

Once some days have passed and each side takes stock, they will begin looking for an exit strategy. If the Bush administration follows past protocol, it will encourage Israel to prolong the war in the hopes of achieving a "knock-out" blow.

At the end, a shaky return to the status quo will take place, each side will declare victory, and everyone will have lost. Israel will still have a Hamas-run Gaza Strip as its neighbour, and a more angry one to boot, Palestinians will have hundreds - if not thousands - of new graves, and hatred of the US throughout the Arab and Muslims worlds will have received a fresh boost.

So why not change the script?

The US should step in now and help negotiate a ceasefire that can achieve those goals that are consistent with American, Israeli, and Palestinian security interests, ending the violence and lifting the siege on Gaza. A third-party monitoring mechanism should be established that can work with Israel and Hamas to ensure compliance with the agreement. There is a precedent for this - in 1996, following the disastrous Israeli "Grapes of Wrath" operation in Lebanon, a monitoring group consisting of the US, Syria, Israel, Lebanon and France was instituted.

America's allies have a profound role to play right now. They will need to create back-channel opportunities for serious discussions between Israel and Hamas over the terms of a new ceasefire. Those terms will have to include reliable security for Israel and for Palestinians and a full opening of the Gaza Strip to humanitarian aid and economic assistance and development through both Israel and Egypt. That opening will have to come in part with Israel's assistance, but also with Egypt's. The institutionalisation of the "tunnel economy" between Egypt and the Gaza Strip needs to be normalised above the ground and Gaza's civilians need to be allowed to travel for the first time.

A monitoring and verification mechanism will need to be created to ensure that each side fulfills its commitments with modalities to handle the inevitable problems that will arise. It will be necessary to place some monitors inside Gaza and on the border crossings with Israel and Egypt.

The Bush administration can and should be part of this effort. It may be leaving the world a much worse place than when it started, but it can at least try to put out one fire in its last weeks in office. If not, others will have to fill that vacuum – something that has happened often in the last eight years and that we are seeing already in this latest crisis, with the beginnings of Turkish mediation and French truce efforts.

Finally, it must be made clear that this is a stop-gap measure, a prelude to a broader stabilisation effort that can deliver something at least approximating peace. And for that, America is indispensable. The place to start is not by injecting new life into the flawed Annapolis peace process. That effort, focused exclusively on the West Bank and on reaching a deal on paper, absent implementation mechanisms, inclusivity and a regional component, has just been exposed in all its redundancy.

In re-thinking its approach, America will have to work more closely with its allies, and develop a meaningful division of labour. For instance, Turkey, Arab states like Qatar, and the Europeans should be allowed to take the lead in working to get Hamas' formal acceptance of the Arab League initiative and negotiating a power-sharing agreement between the Fatah faction in control in the West Bank and the Hamas leadership in Gaza. The US has vetoed this approach in the past. Those allies will also have to be more forceful in advocating a different approach to the US and be willing to carry the extra burden of new responsibilities.

A key US national security interest goal for the incoming Obama administration is ending the state of hostility between Israel and her Arab neighbors and ensuring the creation of a Palestinian state that is part of a new regional security structure. This will help promote a more stable regional environment for withdrawal from Iraq, dramatically improve the US negotiating position with Iran, ensure Israel's prosperity and security, and win allies in the battle against Salafist extremism. It is hard to overstate the importance of creating a new regional context in the Middle East. The narrow and self-serving interests of particular Israeli and Palestinian governments (and the Palestinians currently have two) have to be subsumed to that overriding necessity.

But figuring out how to get there will take a major rethink. Obama's silence right now on Gaza, as opposed to his comments on the terrorist attacks in Mumbai or on the financial crisis, may not be such a bad thing if the alternative is an endorsement of dead-end conflict. Nuancing the failed policies the US has pursued in the Middle East over the last eight years is not enough, it will not give us very different results. Coming up with a new policy and tactics should be something that exercises the Obama administration starting from day one.

In the meantime, the United States must be seen to be a source for conflict resolution not escalation – starting now with Gaza.